As the Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action dominates the news cycle, I can’t help but be reminded of a moment that I would remember for the rest of my life.
If you are Black and grew up in America, I’m sure you have an interesting affirmative action story. For my entire life (and I’m almost 40), affirmative action has been a confusing topic for many (even for me), which led to some weird moments as a Black teen.
Growing up in the Northeast, racism was a thing, but not as in your face as in the South, so when someone said something racist it was a shock to many.
My brother and I were football stars in high school and every week coaches from different colleges would come to watch us play. Our team was fairly diverse and most of the guys developed strong relationships from working out over the summer. My twin and I were headed into our senior year and showing out for college scouts was the only thing on our minds.
I had been recruited by Lehigh University to play football, but the school was known for its engineering program and prided itself on how hard it was to get in. It was my #1 school choice at the time, but I was a small athlete and had to show out to really impress them.
The year started strong and my stats were up to par with most of the wide receivers in the state. Then it happened…During the third game of the season I tore two ligaments in my thumb and in that instance, I saw my football career flash before my eyes. I was devastated but determined to show Lehigh University I was worth taking a chance on. After visiting a hand specialist, I was given two options, get surgery and end my season, or play with no control over how my thumb moves. I chose to play with no thumb. Just try to imagine playing wide receiver with a right thumb that danced around like a tube man blowing in the wind in front of a janky car dealership. My thumb was shot, but I didn’t care. In the games, I’d wear a brace that was somewhere between a cast and a boxing glove, but in practice, I’d take the brace so I could learn how to catch without a thumb. Coaches and teammates were in awe of my dedication and grit to play through my injury and it rallied our team a bit. By the last 3 games of the season, I wasn’t wearing the brace at all and I continued to flourish. So much so, that not even a month after the season Lehigh offered me a scholarship to play football. When I got the news I was in tears because I had worked so hard after my injury to be seen and it worked.
But everyone wasn’t happy about it. A teammate of mine whom I considered a friend also had Lehigh as his first choice school, but he wasn’t fortunate enough to be on their radar like I was. The news of me getting offered did something to him and I never understood. Something in his brain had to pull me down a few pegs. One day he and I were headed to the athletic center for workouts when he felt compelled to tell me why I got offered from Lehigh and he didn’t.
“You know you got into Lehigh because of affirmative action right?”
I was crushed. Did he not just see all the work I put in all year? Did he not see all the adversity that I had to face, all the practices with one thumb, all the pain from having no ligaments, and all the sacrifices I made? None of that mattered to him, only that I was a quota and the reason why he couldn’t get into Lehigh. The fact that I was one of the best receivers in the state of New Jersey that year meant nothing to him. I was just another Black kid standing in the way of white excellence. He didn’t care about the merits only the color of my skin and because he was white, he was able to weaponize the concept of affirmative action to hurt me, a black kid just trying to make it. A lot of white folks believe this is how affirmative action worked when it’s just not true. Affirmative action was meant to be a protection, not a way to take spots from white folks. What is unfortunate is that now people like my high school teammate feel vindicated by the dismantling of affirmative action when in reality it just perpetuates and reinforces the racist misconceptions that live deep within their souls.
Do I think my old teammate was racist? No.
But I do think he, like many, was blind to what affirmative action really was, and that blindness has led us to exactly this point, a country that thinks minor protections for marginalized people is too much to deal with.
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